Nefertari’s Tomb and the Sistine Chapel
RETURN TO THE CHAUVET CAVE BY JOHN ROBINSON
I have been lucky enough to visit other incredible wonders, such as Nefertari’s Tomb and the Sistine Chapel. In my opinion these two Sanctuaries contain paintings of the highest attainment that has ever been achieved. For me they have now been joined by the paintings of Chauvet. I think such places are not just the homes of great Art, they house the very Spirit of Art.
Dedicated to Future Paradises that can only be reached after death, Queen Nefertari’s Tomb was sealed after her sarcophagus was placed inside some 4000 years ago and the wonderful wall paintings were not meant to be seen by anyone accept the Gods.
The Sistine Chapel is also centred on death and the After Life. The reredos depicts the Last Judgement of the Souls of the dead, of those who would attain Heaven or suffer everlasting damnation.
The animal spirit world
How do I fit Chauvet into these thoughts? Undoubtedly the cave is another place of worship, where the highest artistic talent has been used to depict animals. I think the art shows that man believed he could communicate with the animal spirit world. My question is, “Did he also think he could visit it?”
I wondered if Chauvet was a cultural stepping-stone? Had the Bear Clan people yet arrived at the idea of their “possessing souls”, which could survived death and then join the animal Spirit World? Or were they only concerned with their own Fertility and the Hunting of animals?
Unambal Tribe’s beliefs
My thoughts turned to the Aborigine Unambal Tribe
and their beliefs as recorded by Dr. Andreas Lommel in 1938 in Kimberley, N.W.Australian. The Unambal were a Stone Age people, and lived a life very similar to that of the Chauvet people 35,000 years ago. The Unambal used stone tools, spears, and believed in the Spirit World. Their Medicine Men painted their Wandjina Gods and called upon them for help.
The Unambal believed that each person had two souls or shadows. After death one of the shadows went to an Underworld, in which life carried on as it had on Earth. A connection was possible between a living person on the Earth and the shadows in the Underworld. Contacting the shadows of the Underworld was the function of the Shaman, who was a central figure of importance in the lives of the Aborigines.
Unambal and the Bear Clan
I believe that the Bear Clan must have been very like the Unambal tribe. If you replace “Unambal” with “Bear Clan” in the following text by Doctor Lommel I feel you have a picture of the people who used Chauvet. Doctor Lommel was able to gather his information by living with the Unambal and listening to their stories, which they also enacted in their Corroboree dances.
Shaman at centre of the community
Lommel writes:- “The Medicine Man was at the centre of the community and life among the Unambal aborigines comes to an end if he dies or he loses his skills. He was the collective soul of the hunting group, and his job was to make good all that was not as it should be.
Link to Creation Myth
He was their link with primeval times and the Creation Myth, and without him a complete degeneration of their order and life occurred. Life in the present was only possible through constant contact with primeval times. The mediator between the present and primeval times was the Medicine Man, as he not only lived in the present, but also in him the creative forces that were in operation in primeval times were still alive.
Through dreams the Shaman could establish contact with primeval forces. In a state of trance he separates his shadow from his body, and sent it to the distant lands or the Underworld. Before the wet season started the Medicine Man went to the rock painting of the Wandjina to re-establish contact. He is also the only one who can associate safely with the rock spirits that eat the corpses and carry off people’s souls. Finally it was the Medicine Man who could send his soul to the underworld, thus maintaining the link between the living and the ancestors.
It was the task of the Medicine Man to fill the Wandjina with renewed life, in this way guaranteeing the rain for each year. This same power enables him also to heal sick people, ensure success in the hunt, or even kill people who proved to be a burden to the fellowship of the tribe. The Medicine Men were the poets of the tribal community, and received the Corroboree songs and dances from the Underworld.
Dreaming a child
The Aborigines believe the act of procreation was of only slight significance for their entry into life, although they were in no doubt at all about this physical function in the case of animals. In their view spirit children split off from the Wandjina and then live in the depth of the water hole with them. Only through a dream process could a man acquire such a spirit child. A further dream process was necessary to transmit the spirit child to the man’s wife. The spirit child was about the size of a finger, and when the father found one he could bind it into his hair and carry it around with him for years.
Changes into a small snake
The man gives the spirit child to his wife in a dream process. She dreams that she had received the spirit child, which resided in the pit of her collarbone. Later the spirit child changes into a small snake or lizard that enters the woman’s body through her vagina.
A child’s sex was known from the moment the spirit child was found, but at the moment of birth its sex could be changed. The Aborigines stick a club upright in the sand beside the woman giving birth if they want a boy or a cleft digging stick if they preferred a girl. After birth the umbilical cord was hung around the child’s neck and must not be lost, otherwise the child would die. The child is then washed and fine charcoal dust is rubbed into it’s skin to make it black. When a person dies the spirit child, or the second soul, returns to the Wandjina’s watering place where it was found in a dream by the father.”